On Target column from CAB

By: Justin Sexten, Ph.D.

As summer turned to autumn, you faced familiar questions. Do I market calves at weaning or precondition them? Which heifers should I keep? Record prices made answers a bit easier last year, but with those on the decline you may want to consider alternatives.

The decision of when to market calves relative to weaning comes down to enterprise profitability along with feed, facilities and labor availability. Cash flow can play a role, too, but recent profits may give you more marketing flexibility.

Affordable feed and forage suggests a reasonable cost of gain for preconditioning. If you used profits to upgrade facilities, you’re ready to take advantage of reduced labor and management costs while trying to add value and weight in an uncertain market.

As calf supplies increases in this expansion phase, premiums for preconditioning tend to increase as buyers become more selective.

The value of gain during preconditioning is linked to improvements in health, reduction in shrink and weight gain. It’s hard to earn health premiums without some verification, so consider participating in branded systems with defined requirements, oversight and a marketing program to increase buyer confidence.

Shrink is reduced when you separate weaning stress from marketing. Shrink is inevitable when you handle cattle, but preconditioning lets you sort them into marketing groups in the lot as you familiarize them with bunk feeding.

Producers should work with nutritionists to develop an energy-dense diet to promote gain during this critical time. Selling more pounds of a value-added product is another way to improve preconditioning profits while preparing calves to perform on the rail. Since marbling development is a lifetime process, energy-dense preconditioning diets offer advantages on the farm or ranch while potentially enhancing grade for the feeder.

The heifer side

As the cow herd expands, you can expect more selection pressure on replacement heifers everywhere, so you might as well start at home. The record-low beef cow inventory coupled with record-high calf prices last year led to greater heifer retention and less selection pressure. When you wean heifers this fall, pay more attention to quality replacements.

Begin by selecting heifers born early in the calving season. These early-born females are more productive over their lifetime and carry genetics adapted to your operation\’s management and resources. They will be older and require less inputs to achieve puberty and an adequate percentage of mature size by the start of breeding season.

From this group, cull heifers with obvious disposition problems, because seldom does a poor disposition get better. Heifers with pinkeye scars or known health challenges are also candidates for culling. If you’re trying to moderate mature size, take another look at frame in your heifers. It’s easy to spot and cull the short and poor performers, but if you don’t cull the larger framed heifers, mature cows size will drift higher over time.

This is the time to look at available data such as individual weaning weights and perhaps records for related females in the herd. Keep that data handy as you look at frame size to help find the right heifers.

Another data point to consider is DNA. A preconditioning period lets you make an initial phenotypic evaluation, collect samples on heifer prospects and wait for results while the group remains in the lot. Current DNA tests provide information on maternal, terminal and production traits, along with optional parentage and BVD-PI testing. Combining the DNA results with records and phenotypic evaluation lets you select replacements suited to the environment while advancing the genetic merit of their offspring.